Recently, an alleged wife of a popular televangelist, Thomas Wahome of Helicopter of Christ Church, went to court to sue the man for child support and upkeep.
Leah Mueni demanded Sh300,000 saying in court documents that the pastor makes millions from worshippers.
She wanted the court to grant her her request, alleging it is a drop in the ocean of the fortunes of the man of God.
The case and the kind of money bandied around aroused debate on the amount of money the men of God make in their mission to spread the word of God.
It is not clear how much religion is worth in Kenya, but a peek into the lifestyles of some of the men of God is a good pointer to the amounts of money made.
At the height of the referendum campaigns for the new Constitution, Apostle James Ng’ang’a of the Neno Evangelism Centre rode into Uhuru Park atop the latest Range Rover Sports model. The car coasts about Sh8 million. And that is a conservative estimate.
While jumping up and down the car’s hood, he said: “You see us? You see us? We too have money. We are driving even in cars that ministers cannot afford!”
Debate has been raging over the rise in new churches and ministries, especially in the urban areas. Religious scholars say the flashy lifestyles of some of the preachers may be drawing some people who are not genuinely in it to win souls for Christ.
Churches are mushrooming everywhere, complete with “miracle” merchandise for sale. At lunchtime in Nairobi, the din from hooting of matatus and blaring stereos from exhibition stalls selling music albums suddenly gets drowned in a cacophony of new sounds.
Chants of “Amen!” Barikiwa!” Riswa!” rent the air from public address equipment mounted on windows of the nearby buildings. Amidst this chaos, Christian faithful file into the houses of worship, hands in the air and eyes firmly shut in supplication.
It is said that miracles are abundant in these places. All one needs to do is believe – and part with a few thousands of shillings.
The more the money, the bigger the miracle. Worshippers in need of divinity in their lives are fuelling the fire that powers an industry that borders on greed, fraud and, according to others, immorality.
When he set out to write his thesis on occult, Pastor Gilbert Jumba of Nairobi Pentecostal Church was certain that there would be no common thread between his kind of religion (that of the gospel of Jesus) and the dark arts of deception and falsehoods he was dissecting in his paper.
“But now, I think the dotted line that separated the two worlds has become nonexistent. The church and religion have lost their way. Worse, is that some of those purporting to be religious leaders are leading their flock away,” he says.
On a rather wet Wednesday afternoon in Nairobi, a worship centre located on the third floor of a building along Moi Avenue has just begun the lunchtime prayer service.
There are two businesses between it and the fast food shop on the ground floor. Directly below it is a computer hardware shop. A floor lower is a licensed bar.
At the entrance of the church is a small table draped in white. On it are plastic bottles of different sizes with a coloured, oily liquid. The labels on the bottles say “Israel Olive Oil”.
The day’s service is special. In the wake of the Al-Shabaab bombing threats, the apostle comes bearing good news to his faithful.
He has specifically prayed for, and anointed the olive oil, thus giving it powers to protect them against all manner of danger. Including the terrorists’ grenades.
An usher asks which one I prefer. Sensing my hesitation, she proceeds, like a polished sales lady, to explain the difference. The ones in the smallest of bottles approximately 100ml cost Sh100. They offer protection for a week.
The next size is a 250ml bottle that offers protection for up to two weeks. It goes for Sh250. The largest of the bottles measures half a litre. They protect you from evil for a whole month.
The periods are strict. After the shelf life expires, one is bound to come back for a refill. She estimates that, on any given day, the church sells between 200 and 300 bottles.
Assuming that they only sold the 100ml bottles, that would give the worship centre between Sh20,000 and Sh30,000 each day.
She let it slip that the prophet of the centre plans to make his debut on several local TV stations soon and get a piece of the mega bucks up for grabs from desperate Kenyans.
“I can see you with marital problems. You are having trouble with your spouse. A few days ago you had an argument. She is still not talking to you. I tell you, dear worshipper, God will make all your troubles go away. He will make them disappear.
“Let us bow our heads in prayer and cast out this demon of misunderstanding and arguments. Let us say No to him. But before we do that, dear viewer, send your donation to the number at the bottom of your screen.
“Send whatever you have. As soon as I hear the message come in, I will begin praying for you and you will immediately see God’s miracles in your life!”
The head of the Anglican Church of Kenya, Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, takes issue with this prayer-for-pay business.
“Even Jesus himself, the son of God, did not charge for his miracles. Why would man do so? If one truly has such a gift from the Almighty, he should use it for the good of mankind not for his own personal gain,” says the Archbishop.
“We cannot point a finger and take a moral standing. But we can ask all our brothers in religion to look at what they are doing and ask themselves if it is in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.”
In a cut-throat capitalist environment in which employment is hard to come by, and it is even harder for the entrepreneurial spirit to succeed, orators with the barest of theological knowledge are taking the easier option.
“It is a hassle-free corner. All you need is a venue for a few hours each day and go back home with more than the minimum wage a worker retires with at the end of the day,” says sociologist Oliver Muhanji.
“After all, it is a smart business idea that can survive even the harshest of recessions.” The sociologist says these preachers break no laws.
“The public willingly goes to them for nourishment and willingly give them their hard-earned money. After the service, the congregation walks back home, and the pastor drives off in a trendy car that they bought him.”
He explains that in a society with so much inequality, where short-cuts are favoured over hard work, it will be impossible to make people see the falsehoods being dangled before their eyes.
“If I just lost my job and at that moment of weakness I meet someone who hints at a better tomorrow for me, naturally I will be inclined towards hanging on to his each and every word. No matter the bizarreness of his claims, he simply becomes my support system,” says Mr Muhanji.
Eventually, this support system continues to prey on your fears and pray for you to get closer to your ambitions. “At such a point, it has nothing to do with religion or salvation. It is all about survival and existence,” he says.
With such a dedicated following, the house of worship soon moves out of a rented building, straight into a big temple. After a few months of hardship and cash flow problems, the church transforms into an ultra-modern centre.
But there seems to be something wrong with the mainstream churches which makes the new ministries flourish. Religious studies lecturer Hannington Obuya says questions should be asked on the relevance of the mainstream churches.
“Why is it that people are running away from them and into the arms of these so- called fraudsters? I believe this is a more valid concern.
“If they purport to preach truth and salvation, why are we flocking to dens of untruths and worldliness? Are they not connecting with their flock?” he asks.
He says the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Baptist orders have fallen short of sufficiently nourishing their faithful’s spiritual needs.
“People look for these needs elsewhere. And it is these ‘fraudsters’ that fulfil them. Even if it is in their own dubious, selfish ways,” says the lecturer.
At the end of the service at the church on Moi Avenue, tens of people rush out of the windowless cubicle and make their way back to work.
A woman approaches the usher at the door for some Israel Olive Oil. Only a few bottles remain. The woman says she doesn’t have enough money for a bottle. She only has Sh50.
The usher tells her she can buy her own bottle, use some oil and leave it behind and come for it the following day. This seems to be the best news she has had all day. She hands over the Sh50.
The usher, who also doubles as the cashier, opens a 100ml bottle and pours some of its contents into the open palms of the worshipper, screws it shut and places it somewhere under the table.
The worshipper smears the oil on her braids and on the face, then proceeds downstairs. I would have sworn the smell she leaves in her wake is unmistakably that of used cooking oil.